A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a group of 13-year-old South Island students on a college excursion to the capital.
Their teacher had introduced them to me as specially “gifted and talented” but their main gift appeared to be an inclination towards state action.
In talking with them, I realised how different my upbringing was compared to theirs. I was only a year older than them when the Berlin Wall fell. We just celebrated the 30th anniversary of this geopolitical milestone on Saturday. To me, it remains the most important historical event of my lifetime.
So, the difference between the students and me was not only because of our different countries but our incomparable historical circumstances. Both have a profound impact on their outlook on politics – and mine.
When I was growing up in West Germany, the Cold War was part of everyday life.
The sirens to warn of a Russian invasion were tested regularly on Saturday at noon. Alongside our motorways, in bright yellow, were special road signs for battle tanks (just in case). And our TV shows routinely ended with greetings to “our brothers and sisters” behind the Wall, in East Germany.
Because the East was an economic basket case, we were one of millions of West German families trying to help. Each Christmas, we would send parcels filled with Swiss chocolate, coffee and other capitalist goodies to East Germans we had never met (and who became penfriends). It was an act of solidarity – and perhaps it was also dealing with the guilt of being in the free part of the country by sheer luck.
I spent a holiday in West Berlin in 1988 with my parents. To get there, we had to drive on one of three designated motorways connecting West Germany to the island city. These motorways went through East German territory. The West German government had paid for them, and the East German police did their best to scare anyone who used them. The Stasi probably knew everything about us anyway (my Dad was a policeman).
While in Berlin, we visited our penfriends in the East for the first time. Crossing that heavily controlled checkpoint in our small Mercedes family car had something of a spy movie feel to it.
The capital of East Germany was supposed to be the country’s shop window. Except it was empty. The supermarkets were pathetic, the ice cream I had at Alexanderplatz tasted watery. But what I remember most are the colours. Everything was a variation of beige, grey and beige-grey.
When the Wall came down a year later, I was glued to the TV. We all were. It was a moment of joy hard to describe, and it had nothing to do with patriotism or even nationalism. Those sentiments were no longer available to Germans after World War II. Instead, it was the joy of seeing East Germans liberated.
Freedom can be such an abstract idea but on that 9th of November 1989 it was plain to see.
A couple of months later, I returned to Berlin. I chipped stones off the Wall at Bernauer Straße. I climbed the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate. I even ripped some steel out of the concrete. It felt great.
Growing up in divided Germany was like being part of a giant open-air experiment. Take a country with one people, one language and one culture. Cut it in the middle. Let one part organise its affairs in a broadly free-market and democratic way. Let the other implement socialist planning under a one-party dictatorial rule. Wait a few years and see what happens.
The results left no doubt which of the two systems delivered. The complete superiority of West Germany’s performance (economically, politically and culturally) was a good reality check against any socialistic pipedreams in the West. “Dann geh’ doch nach drüben” (“Then just bugger off to the other side!”) was the conventional response.
Such rejection of socialist temptations was widespread in West Germany. You did not have to be a liberal or a conservative to feel that way. One of my early political heroes was Willy Brandt, the former Social Democrat Chancellor. Brandt’s whole life was a fight for freedom, first against the Nazis and then against the Soviet threat. He was Mayor of West Berlin when the Wall was built.
Looking back at those exciting times 30 years ago, it is understandable why esteemed commentators like Francis Fukuyama were quick to proclaim “the end of history”. That was ahistorical nonsense even then. But after that complete triumph of Western, democratic capitalism it was plausible nonsense.
Fast forward to today, and no such certainties have survived. In the three decades that have passed, history has not just restarted (if it ever stopped). In some ways, it has gone backwards.
Socialism is hip and popular once again. In the US, Senator Bernie Sanders is a self-declared socialist and wants to run again for the presidency. In Britain, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has shifted his party to the hard left. And around the world, it is mainly young people who find socialism an appealing idea.
Last year, a survey for the Centre for Independent Studies showed that 58 percent of millennial Australians (people born between 1980 and 1996) had a favourable view of socialism. Last month, a YouGov survey for the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation revealed that 70 percent of American millennials say they would be likely to vote for a socialist candidate.
The Gen Z students I spoke to were younger than these millennials, as they were born around 2006. But they were every bit as socialist-leaning.
At the beginning of the session, before my introductory remarks on the work of the Initiative, I had handed out copies of our Pocket Manifesto, which we had produced before the last election. It outlines the key recommendations from our reports, and I hoped it would give them a sense of our work.
As is turned out, it made for a fiery discussion.
The students questioned me straight away on how economic growth could ever be a good thing since it destroys the environment. They objected to our advocacy of greater openness to foreign investment. They defended strict regulations of land use even when I pointed out that it is their generation these rules lock out of the housing market.
The debate went on to privatisation, which the students did not like either. Instead, they preferred state ownership of companies that can then more easily be bailed out when they fail. Besides, it would be good for companies to be government-owned so they can deliver what the public want.
Besides that, they had no problem with strong central government and higher taxes. Well, they have probably never paid taxes so far.
I have been trying to figure out what political or economic events would have shaped their upbringing. The George W. Bush years and 9/11 happened before they were born. The Global Financial Crisis played out in their toddler years (when not even political tragics like me would follow current affairs).
The students would have started developing their political orientation during the years in which John Key was New Zealand Prime Minister, Barack Obama US President, and the world was moving on from the GFC. Hardly the worst of times to be a child growing up in New Zealand.
For these Gen Z kids, there never was an existential threat or crisis in their lives. They grew up in peace and prosperity. They attend one of the country’s most traditional colleges, which achieved a top review the last time the Education Review Office visited. And yet, their outlook is such that they sympathise with positions incompatible with the socioeconomic system in which they are growing up.
It is hard to understand where the young generation’s sympathies for state intervention and socialism come from. At least it is difficult to see how democracy, freedom and markets are failing them.
However, that may be the wrong way to look at the issue. Perhaps it is precisely their affluent lives with no apparent threats that make them susceptible to radical ideas?
In his recent book Der Fluch des Guten (The Curse of the Good), Swiss journalist Alex Baur offers a good insight. “It is laborious and awkward to deal with what is. It is much easier, but also more non-committal, to focus on what should be,” Baur writes. “Prosperity has made us sluggish and selfish. In our affluence we have lost awareness of the real world. We can afford it.”
Baur has a point. Humanity has faced big crises throughout history. Poverty, wars, epidemics, dictatorships were common for most of the time. Fortunately, we have left many of these behind. The world today is by no means perfect, but it is the best it has been.
There is no immediate threat like the Soviet Empire of old. Apart from North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba, there are not that many countries practising an overt form of socialism, either. “Dann geh’ doch nach drüben” is not a realistic option. The other side does not exist anymore.
The collapse of Eastern European socialism in 1989 should have reassured Western countries of the superiority of their socioeconomic system. Instead, it has robbed them of the yardstick by which they could measure it.
In this feel-good climate, millennials and Gen Z’s are now looking for meaning. They want something aspirational that still does not require them to do anything too different. This is where socialism comes into play.
The problem is that many of these young people do not have the faintest idea what socialism means. When they say socialism, they do not think Marx, Engels or Lenin. They do not have the Soviet system in mind, five-year plans or the theory of historical materialism. They do not bother with the common ownership of the means of production, the creation of socialist man or the permanent revolution of the proletariat.
The reason they do not think in these categories is because they would have never heard of them. At school they would have encountered none of the above. It is just not taught anymore. History is not compulsory in our schools, and with the little bit of history offered, students might learn just the basics about the Romans, the Treaty of Waitangi and perhaps World War II. That is if they are lucky.
Everything else in history is terra incognita for our younger generations. If they switch on the History Channel (if they are still watching TV, that is) they might encounter Hitler. But they would never hear of Stalin and Mao. They would not know of the Cold War. They would not have come across the Age of Reason or the Industrial Revolution.
Absent any such historical knowledge, how would they know what socialism, capitalism and democracy meant?
And so as one of my millennial friends explained to me, they are making things up for themselves. Socialism is everything that somehow feels right to them – or rather left. A universal basic income, protecting the environment, wellbeing, happiness, peace, non-discrimination, redistribution, equality.
In sum, gender-neutral parenthood and vegan apple pie is the new socialism. No wonder majorities of youngsters like it. It is a feel-good recipe, not a political philosophy.
I am concerned this trendy but essentially vacuous orientation of our younger people will come back to bite them. It is all very well to want the right things. But a sound understanding of how society, politics and the economy work beats mere good intentions. Especially if you want to change things for the better.
At the Initiative, we thus strongly support the Government’s plans to formalise the curriculum for teaching New Zealand history. We would support a proper curriculum for teaching world history, too. And I write this knowing that battles will be fought over what goes into these curricula.
We also believe that as a country we need to discuss the state of general knowledge. You can look forward to our research note on this issue, which we will release soon.
Meanwhile, I am celebrating the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall tonight.
Even though it is unnerving to realise that the 30 years that have passed have turned me into a political dinosaur at 44.
Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative. He was born in Gelsenkirchen in 1975 and grew up in West Germany’s Ruhr Area.